DI in the News: Russian Turnout Includes Thousands of Eager Election Observers

By Ellen Barry and Sophia Kishkovsky

MOSCOW — A small army of first-time election observers fanned out across Russian polling places, and hundreds of thousands of citizens watched ballot boxes via a vast network of Web cameras on Sunday, in what amounted to a huge experiment in public scrutiny of the voting process.

Evidence of brazen violations during parliamentary elections in December helped catalyze a series of unusual antigovernment protests, and activists on Sunday circulated evidence — much of it via video clips — that they said established a comparable level of foul play in the presidential election.

But this time the Kremlin seemed better prepared to counter the accusations, which are seen as potentially undermining Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s legitimacy as he embarks on a fresh six-year term as president. As the election approached, the authorities broadcast television exposés about the observers, accusing them of fabricating reports of fraud in a foreign-backed effort to topple Mr. Putin’s government.

Some monitoring efforts were simply shut down. A parallel count organized by the opposition lawmaker Ilya V. Ponomaryov on Sunday had to be halted when the police evacuated the cafe where it was being held, saying there had been a bomb threat. The cafe was a last-minute location, since the Federal Guard Service had shut down the project’s original location on Saturday, Mr. Ponomaryov said.

“As soon as we started counting votes, the people in epaulettes arrived,” he told the radio station Kommersant FM on Sunday evening. “The work — the counting system itself — has been spoiled. Of course we will try to start over a little later, but this is a race against time.”

Golos, Russia’s most prominent election monitoring group, documented 45 cases of “carousel voting,” in which groups of voters using absentee ballots are shuttled between polling places to vote repeatedly.

Apparent carousel voting was the subject of viral videos on Sunday, though much of the footage was ambiguous. Konstantin Rykov, a pro-Kremlin publisher, said the practice could not have swung the election, because there are only two million absentee ballots. “The liberals have taken the ‘carousel’ theme as their main propaganda point for nothing,” he said. “this technology yields no result.”

Aleksandr V. Kynev, a Golos official, said the group had not documented the same widespread ballot-stuffing it had found in December, and speculated that was because “falsification technology has tilted in the direction of more complex and difficult to uncover.”

Election monitoring had exploded from a scholarly endeavor into grass-roots political activism in recent months.

Glenn Cowan, who as a consultant to the United States Agency for International Development has trained election monitors overseas since 1985, said somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 monitors had been deployed by various organizations. He warned that the cacophony of reports released Sunday would offer little overall sense of the election.

“They will show anecdotes, and they will prove examples, but the examples don’t necessarily prove anything about the whole,” Mr. Cowan said.

Mr. Putin and other officials have claimed in recent days that accusations of fraud had been prepared in advance as part of a plot to weaken his government, and point to the fact that Golos is financed mostly by the American government.

“This is simply one of the instruments of battle,” Mr. Putin said last week. “They are getting ready to use certain mechanisms to confirm that the elections are falsified. They are going to stuff the ballot boxes, they are going to control it, and then they will present it to the public. We already see it, we already know it.”

In fact, vigorous election monitoring has led to the downfall of some leaders, including Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and also Russian allies like Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Viktor F. Yanukovich of Ukraine. But Mr. Cowan said the effort in Russia could not have an immediate effect, because Mr. Putin — unlike those mentioned —was not facing a strong opposition force. He said the most surprising aspect of Sunday’s deployment was that observers had mobilized without any expectation that Mr. Putin would leave office in the near future.

“The fact that anybody is coming out when there is no expectation of immediate gratification is really unusual,” said Mr. Cowan, who is in Moscow this week as an analyst for the American government. Its major effect, he said, would be to energize new activists who will look back on this election as a pivotal moment.

“Election observing is as boring as toast,” Mr. Cowan said. “It’s the excitement of being in the crowd, of watching on television something you participated in. It’s like people who watched Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run. Years from now, people will tell the tale of how they were there, even if they weren’t.”

Sunday’s effort drew in volunteers who, until a few months ago, would have described themselves as staunchly apolitical. Ksenia Adamovitch, 31, an aspiring filmmaker, did not even vote in the last presidential election. But on Sunday, she found herself waking before dawn and playing a rousing military march on her laptop to get herself in the mood.

Her preparation for the day had consisted of a two-hour seminar, and she was nervous enough about the protests planned for this week to ask a friend to feed her cat if she were arrested. As she walked to her polling place — a psychiatric hospital — she wondered aloud whether her activism would jeopardize her work at a state-funded film festival.

“It’s not that I want to go out and topple anything,” she said. “But the only way to understand at least approximately what is happening is to go and participate.”

Yulia Yelupova, a journalism student, reported no violations at polling station 2057 during the course of the day. But when she went to vote herself, she filmed the arrival of a group of voters in a van with license plates from another part of the country. When the group’s leader tried to seize her camera, security guards from the polling place detained the man, though he was released later. She said she would gladly serve as an observer in future elections.

“I am 21, and I went there not because it was fashionable,” she said. “We can use quotes from laws in our conversations. I think a person who cares about fashion would never bother learning laws. You really can just come there, sit still for several hours, put your signature in a violation report and proclaim yourself a revolutionary.”

In an effort to shore up public confidence in the election, the Kremlin ordered a $478 million network of Web cameras installed in polling places, and the video generated several accusations. In one, shot from a polling place in Dagestan, in the Caucasus, two people are seen placing ballot after ballot in two separate voting machines.

In another, recorded in Chechnya, a woman seems to vote twice. But activists argued that many of the Web cameras were either turned off or did not provide clear images.

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Publication: 
The New York Times